Is the sand dune lizard really an endangered species?

September 13, 2011 • Local News, News

Emily Russo Miller
Record Staff Writer

(Mark Wilson Photo: Chaves County Commissioner chairman Greg Nibert points to a member of the audience during a meeting with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials Thursday evening.)

Is the sand dune lizard really an endangered species?

Chaves County Commissioners don’t think so, and have recently launched a campaign to prove the lizard’s habitat is not threatened as some groups claim.

They met Thursday night with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials to begin to poke holes in the scientific data being used by [auth] FWS to study the lizard’s status as a potential candidate species for the federal endangered species list. FWS has until Dec. 14 to decide whether the lizard makes the list, and though the public comment period has already ended, scientific data or studies may still be submitted.

Commissioners submitted several reports to FWS for review which challenge whether the lizard is really endangered.

One such report, dubbed “The Kintigh Report,” sponsored by local lawmaker Rep. Dennis Kintigh, R-Roswell, questioned whether the lizard’s habitat has really decreased by 40 percent, as asserted by the FWS based on a 1982 study conducted by Dr. Kirk McDaniel, a New Mexico State University professor in the animal and range science department.

FSW states that in 1982, there was an estimated one million acres of suitable habitat for the lizard found in New Mexico, but that “today, there is an estimated (600,000 acres) of suitable habitat, a decrease of 40 percent.”

Authors of the Kintigh Report, some of whom were at the meeting Thursday, contacted McDaniel about his study, and told commissioners they were surprised to learn that his survey of acreage of the land addressed just the ecology, distribution and management of selected brush species, not animal or other plant species.

“The question concerning the distribution and habitat of the Dunes Sagebrush Lizard is an entirely different question that we never considered or addressed in our reports,” McDaniel wrote in an email response to the Kintigh Report authors. “To determine the distribution and habitat requirement of the dune sagebrush lizard would require a different and more targeted study. Presumably, the lizard occurs on some of the areas we mapped with shinnery oak, but our acreage estimates should in no way be equated to those currently occupied or required by the lizard.”

Commissioners also asked FWS to review the so-called “Fitzgerald Report,” compiled by Texas A&M University zoologist Lee A. Fitzgerald, that questions whether lizard populations are negatively affected within oil and gas development sites; as well as a one-page, unsourced document that appears to be field notes that FSW cited as scientific data. Commissioners described that document as “cryptic notes” and unscientific, while another argued that it would not hold up to the requirements in the federal Quality of Information Act.

FWS officials at the meeting could not comment on much of the heated discussion because they are prohibited from doing so since the public comment period concluded May 29.

However, Wally Murphy, FWS supervisor of the state’s ecological services field offices, and Tom Buckley, FWS public affairs specialist for the southwest region, said they were happy to accept any scientific data, or critique thereof, that could influence the decision the director of the FWS, headquartered in Washington D.C., has to make by year’s end. The director also has the option of extending the deadline for about 90 days, if new evidence or data is presented before the December deadline.

Commissioner chairman Greg Nibert says the county will keep chipping away at the data because commissioners remain unconvinced from existing evidence that the lizard is in fact endangered, or even threatened. Nibert, and other commissioners, emphasized that they are worried the listing of lizard would kill jobs in the oil and gas industry and devastate the local economy that is dependent on that revenue.

They began this latest campaign in the spring after a political rally headlined by U.S. Congressman Steve Pearce, R-Roswell, garnered national attention. Since that time, commissioners assembled a team, headed by “lizard czar” Dan Girand, of Roswell, a member of the Chaves County Public Lands Advisory Committee, to coordinate efforts to keep the lizard from being listed between Chaves, Lea, Eddy and Roosevelt counties, and five counties in Texas. They recently held two meetings in Artesia, and plan on hosting more in the near future.

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